Video, Photos: Aftermath of Fierce Quake That Devastates Haitian Capital


haiti-earthquake[Video and photos below.] A devastating earthquake struck Haiti late yesterday afternoon, as reported here, causing the collapse of the National Palace, leveling countless shantytown dwellings and bringing even more suffering to a nation that was already the hemisphere’s poorest and most disaster-prone.The earthquake, the worst in the region in more than 200 years, left the country in a shambles. As night fell in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, fires burned near the shoreline downtown, but otherwise the city fell into darkness. The electricity was out, telephones were not working and relief workers struggled to make their way through streets blocked by rubble.

In the chaos, it was not possible for officials to determine how many people had been killed and injured, but they warned that the casualties could be substantial.

The physical toll was easier to assess. The headquarters of the United Nations mission collapsed, the United Nations said in a statement, and many employees were missing.

“The main building that was the headquarters building has collapsed,” Alain Le Roy, the chief of U.N. peacekeeping forces said in New York. “We know there will be casualties but we cannot give figures for the time being,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying.

A hospital collapsed in PĂ©tionville, a hillside district in Port-au-Prince that is home to many diplomats and wealthy Haitians, a videographer for The Associated Press said. And an American government official reported seeing houses that had tumbled into a ravine.

Tequila Minsky, a photographer based in New York who was in Port-au-Prince, said that a wall at the front of the Hotel Oloffson had fallen, killing a passer-by. A number of nearby buildings had crumbled, trapping people, she said, and a Unibank bank building was badly damaged. People were screaming.

“It was general mayhem,” Ms. Minksy said.

The earthquake, with a magnitude estimated at 7.0, struck just before 5 p.m. about 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the United States Geological Survey said. Many aftershocks followed and more were expected, said David Wald, a Geological Survey seismologist.

“The main issue here will probably be shaking,” he said, “and this is an area that is particularly vulnerable in terms of construction practice, and with a high population density. There could be a high number of casualties.”

Oxfam, the antipoverty group, said that Kristie van de Wetering, a former employee based in Port-au-Prince, had described houses in rubble everywhere.

“There is a blanket of dust rising from the valley south of the capital,” agency officials said Ms. van de Wetering had told them. “We can hear people calling for help from every corner. The aftershocks are ongoing and making people very nervous.”

The earthquake could be felt across the border in the Dominican Republic, on the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola. High-rise buildings in the capital, Santo Domingo, shook and sent people streaming down stairways into the streets, fearing that the tremor could intensify.

Haiti sits on a large fault that has caused catastrophic quakes in the past, but this one was described as among the most powerful to hit the region. With many poor residents living in tin-roof shacks that sit precariously on steep ravines and with much of the construction in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in the country of questionable quality, the expectation was that the quake caused major damage to buildings and significant loss of life.

Haiti’s many man-made woes – its dire poverty, political infighting and proclivity for insurrection – have been exacerbated repeatedly by natural disasters. At the end of 2008, four hurricanes flooded whole towns, knocked out bridges and left a destitute population in even more desperate conditions.

The United States and other countries have devoted significant humanitarian support to Haiti, financing a large United Nations peacekeeping mission that has recently reported major gains in controlling crime. International aid has also supported an array of organizations aimed at raising the country’s dismal health and education levels.

Emergency meetings were being held in Washington, and President Obama issued a statement saying that administration officials were closely monitoring the situation.

“We stand ready to assist the people of Haiti,” Mr. Obama said.

The Caribbean is not usually considered a seismic danger zone, but earthquakes have struck here in the past.

“There’s a history of large, devastating earthquakes,” said Paul Mann, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas, “but they’re separated by hundreds of years.” Most of Haiti lies on the Gonave microplate, a sliver of the earth’s crust between the much larger North American plate to the north and the Caribbean plate to the south. The earthquake on Tuesday occurred when what appears to be part of the southern fault zone broke and slid.

The fault is similar in structure to the San Andreas fault that slices through California, Dr. Mann said.

Such earthquakes, which are called strike-slip, tend to be shallow and produce violent shaking at the surface.

“They can be very devastating, especially when there are cities nearby,” Dr. Mann said.

Victor Tsai, a seismologist at the National Earthquake Information Center of the United States Geological Survey, said the depth of Tuesday’s earthquake was only about six miles and the quake was a 9 on a 1-to-10 scale that measures ground shaking. “We expect substantial damage from this event,” he said.

Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview on CNN that he had little information about the extent of damage but said the suffering inflicted on the was likely to be “catastrophic.”

Mr. Joseph said that the one official he had reached – identified by The Associated Press as President Rene Preval’s chief of staff, Fritz Longchamp – told him that houses had crumbled “on the right side of the street and the left side of the street.”

Elsie St. Louis-Accilien, the director of the Haitian Americans United for Progress in Queens, N.Y., said that she was able to reach the director of Ofatma hospital, in Port-au-Prince. “They are trapped inside,” Ms. St. Louis-Accilien said in a telephone interview. “They were pretty shaken, but they were relieved to be alive.”

She said that the director said that there was “a lot of smoke, a lot of dust,” and that her phone has been ringing nonstop. “People are calling me, elected officials are calling, asking what we can do.”

For video of the aftermath, click below:

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For photos, see below:

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{NY Times/AP/Noam Newscenter}